How gold helped save Andre Agassi's career

Andre Agaasi is one of only two players (Rafael Nadal) who has won all four majors and Olympic gold. AP Photo/Lynne Sladk

Andre Agassi learned an interesting lesson some time ago on "Parents' Day" at his children's school. After describing his tennis career, he realized neither the parents nor the kids in the audience were very interested in hearing the way he was able to return the rumbling power of Pete Sampras' serve or how he completed a career Grand Slam.

"They were more mesmerized by the gold medal than anything else," Agassi told ESPN.com on the 20th anniversary of his 1996 Summer Olympic Games triumph in Atlanta. "It has this power. That's why some athletes who have one carry it around with them. Because so many people just want to see it. Some display it. Others hide it or put it in a safety deposit box so it can't get lost or stolen."

An Olympic gold medal is the ultimate athletic talisman. It is the unqualified symbol of a competitor's victory at a moment that will forever be protected. There's nothing beyond it.

Gold is among the heavier elements, but Agassi still reaches for his medal as if it were a buoyant lifesaver as his darkest days approached. For that reason, his win in Atlanta is as important to him as any of his eight major titles.

Early in 1995, Agassi had beaten Sampras in the Australian Open final, and in doing so, he snared the No. 1 ranking for the first time. Agassi flew wild and high that summer, amassing a 26-match winning streak at one point.

He finished the year with a sterling 73-9 record and bagged seven titles, but it was one loss in late September that gutted him for years to come. Agassi had navigated his way to the US Open final, but the fearsome ball striker fell to rival Sampras in four sets. A summer of celebration had turned into anguish. Agassi crashed. He had nothing left.

By the end of 1995, Agassi's life was unraveling like gut strings in a racket that had been played for too long. Demons that lay dormant were coming awake and closing in as the next season began.

"The bottom was starting to come up at me and my [first] wife [Brooke Shields] in 1996," Agassi said. "I took the loss to Pete at the Open hard. My achievements didn't cure the disconnect I felt from the game. I was struggling with meaning and purpose."

Agassi's youth was a handsomely illustrated catalog of conflicts and poor decisions. But even as a rebel and wild child, he had the patriot gene, as his Davis Cup exploits attest. He always held the Olympic Games in like regard. So while his resentment of tennis by mid-1996 was at a fever pitch, he clung to his Olympic ambitions. He found the will to train for the intense heat of Atlanta with laser-like focus.

"I was really clear," Agassi said. "Difficulty is guaranteed, but clarity is gold. It was the first time I felt passion and focus after my struggles started in '95."

Still, various burdens coursed through Agassi's nervous system like strains of virus as the Games began. Agassi did not always handle pressure well, at least not in his early years. He was a vulnerable top seed in Atlanta.

"Olympics is in its own category," Agassi said, noting that it's the only time a tennis player truly is competing on behalf of his country as an individual.

Agassi and Croatian Goran Ivanisevic were seeded Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in Atlanta. The treacherous nature of Olympic tennis kicked in immediately as Ivanisevic was eliminated easily in the first round.

Agassi foundered, barely getting by Jonas Bjorkman, always a tough out on hard courts, in two close tiebreakers. In the third round, Agassi was down a set and a break before he recovered to beat Italian Andrea Gaudenzi. Wayne Ferreira of South Africa served for the match in the quarterfinals, but Agassi came up clutch. In the best-of-five final, Agassi ran Sergi Bruguera to the ground in signature fashion, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.

Some critics will note Sampras, Boris Becker and a host of other Grand Slam contenders did not play Atlanta for various reasons. Most of them never won Olympic gold, either -- even when they chose to compete. Bear in mind, Nicolas Massu has a singles gold, and so does a Swiss player not named Roger Federer. Marc Rosset won the singles competition at the 1992 Barcelona Games. That's Olympic tennis.

"I never needed an opponent to lose," Agassi said. "But there were also times that it didn't matter who I played. I was going to win. My pride in getting over the line in Atlanta isn't affected by any considerations."

Agassi's gold medal sits at the very center of the display of his Grand Slam trophies, in the gym he built in Las Vegas some decades ago with great friend and long-time trainer Gil Reyes. Invariably, aspiring athletes visiting the facility wonder where the medal fits into the greater scheme of things.

"How somebody perceives the challenge or importance of the Olympics is kind of their business," Agassi said. "I just look at that medal and say, 'I wish every person in the history of our game who was great at what he did had one.'"